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WHAT’S THE TIME, MR WOLF?

Guru Magazine - - Contents - ROSS HARPER• COM­PLEX­ITY GURU

It’s cheaper than a Rolex and doesn’t need wind­ing up. It’s your in­ter­nal clock – your very own way of telling the time. Com­plex­ity Guru Ross Harper in­sists that keep­ing your clock in sync is es­sen­tial for healthy liv­ing, yet is sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult to do in the mod­ern world.

What is the time? It’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. Tod­dlers strug­gle with it, late­com­ers avoid it, and the wealthy throw their money on jeweled ac­ces­sories to an­swer it. What­ever the case, we all tend to agree: to know the time, we need to check the time. But it turns out this isn’t quite true. We each have an in­ter­nal clock that guides our bi­ol­ogy ac­cord­ing to a daily sched­ule. So, while Mr. Wolf may not be able to an­swer the ques­tion, it turns out his body al­ready has. Prob­lems arise, how­ever, when the clock fails… When I say in­ter­nal clock, I’m not re­fer­ring to the toy watch you found in your Christ­mas stock­ing one year and then sub­se­quently swal­lowed in all the ex­cite­ment (though I con­cede, that too qual­i­fies as an in­ter­nal clock). Rather, I’m talk­ing about the abil­ity for in­di­vid­ual cells to keep time. Just as a typ­i­cal watch syn­chro­nizes it’s tick­ing to the vi­bra­tions of a quartz crys­tal, so your cells reg­u­late them­selves us­ing fluc­tu­a­tions in the lev­els of spe­cific ‘clock’ pro­teins. It’s a minia­ture molec­u­lar cas­cade that lasts roughly 24 hours, and at the end of it all, an­other day is done – hence why we call it ‘cir­ca­dian’, from the Latin, circa (about) and diem (a day).

Na­ture’s dodgy clock

Now as a budding young bi­ol­o­gist, I’m a firm be­liever in the wis­dom of Na­ture. But on this oc­ca­sion, I’m afraid our cir­ca­dian clock can’t quite con­tend with the likes of Rolex or Bre­itling. The fact is, we’re a lit­tle slow. For­tu­nately, our clocks are con­stantly re-cal­i­brated by en­vi­ron­men­tal cues – most no­tably, that he­lio­cen­tric horol­o­gist we call the ‘Sun’. And it’s all thanks to some in­tri­cate in­ner work­ings that would ri­val the finest Swiss time­piece. The main cir­ca­dian reg­u­la­tor in hu­mans is made up of around 1000 nerve cells and is lo­cated just be­hind our eyes in a part of the brain called the ‘Supra Chi­as­matic Nu­cleus’ (taken straight from Web­ster’s collection of snappy names). Ev­ery morn­ing, sun­light en­ters our eyes and re­sets the clock – thanks to the break­down of a rather am­i­ca­bly named clock protein, ‘ TIM’. In this way, dawn marks the be­gin­ning of a 24-hour cy­cle in which we wake, eat, work, eat, surf the In­ter­net for pic­tures of cats, eat, and fi­nally sleep. Or at least that’s how things were sup­posed to work be­fore Thomas Edi­son had the bright idea of trap­ping light in­side a glass bulb. Now our clocks rarely get a proper daily re­set.

In to­day’s world, we are con­stantly bathed in the glow of ar­ti­fi­cial light. We are never far from the glare of a com­puter screen, the hum of a halo­gen lamp, or the blink­ing of a thou­sand LED eyes on the var­i­ous ap­pli­ances that pop­u­late our homes. Aside from be­ing a nui­sance – I’ve long since given up on try­ing to see the stars through a thick layer of light pol­lu­tion – this lu­mi­nes­cent on­slaught also af­fects our cir­ca­dian clock. What time is it? Our bod­ies are be­com­ing less sure of the an­swer. And this un­cer­tainty brings some pretty dire con­se­quences. Sleep dis­or­ders are com­mon, but more fright­en­ing is that cir­ca­dian dis­rup­tion can lead to cancer, di­a­betes, and a myr­iad of men­tal health prob­lems. (Quick! Some­one get me a Rolex! No? Fine, an egg timer will do!) Thank­fully, just 135 years post-Edi­son, we are now clock­ing on to the im­por­tance of cir­ca­dian well-be­ing. The hu­man eye con­tains around 100 mil­lion light-de­tect­ing cells, most of which are nec­es­sary for vi­sion. How­ever, a small sub­group is used to re­lay in­for­ma­tion to our cir­ca­dian clock about the light around us. In­ter­est­ingly, these cells hap­pen to be par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to blue light. So, by stop­ping ar­ti­fi­cial sources of blue light from get­ting into the eye, the idea is that we could pull an all-nighter at the com­puter with­out con­fus­ing our cir­ca­dian clock. (It’s as if the clock can only ‘see’ in blue, and so by fil­ter­ing out this colour, we trick it into think­ing it’s ac­tu­ally dark – when we’re re­ally just stay­ing up past our bed­time). It’s hard to be­lieve our brain might be that gullible; in­deed, the re­al­ity is likely to be a bit more com­pli­cated. But this idea of fil­ter­ing out blue light seems to be do­ing the trick: in clin­i­cal tests, spe­cial blue light-block­ing gog­gles worn three hours be­fore bed were shown to im­prove mood and sleep qual­ity. While the same ef­fect has yet to be seen for the other, more sin­is­ter symp­toms of cir­ca­dian dis­tur­bance, it’s a promis­ing start. And the U.S. mil­i­tary seems con­vinced, even if you’re not. The Depart­ment of De­fense are al­ready pro­to­typ­ing their own cir­ca­dian gog­gles in the hopes of craft­ing stronger, faster soldiers. Now to a guy like me, a pair of so­cially ac­cept­able RoboCop-es­que gog­gles sounds like a dream come true. But I ap­pre­ci­ate this may not be the case for the more con­ser­va­tive cir­ca­dian health en­thu­si­ast. A sim­pler ap­proach would there­fore be to out­source the job to your lap­top or smart­phone; soft­ware is al­ready avail­able that can al­ter the bright­ness and colour of an elec­tronic dis­play to bet­ter match the type of light we should be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing for the time of day. How do I know? Well, it’s 11 o’clock in the evening, and I’m typ­ing these words in the warmth of a deep or­ange com­puter screen. (Though I am still feel­ing a lit­tle sleepy…. Per­haps an­other cof­fee?) A bit late in the day, per­haps, but 2014 looks set to usher in a height­ened aware­ness of the im­por­tance of a healthy bi­o­log­i­cal sched­ule. It might not be all that long be­fore we look back on our cur­rent life­style with the same sense of “well, duh!” that we give to as­bestos in class­rooms and makeup prod­ucts con­tain­ing lead. What­ever the case, per­haps we might of­fer a bit more thought to a ques­tion we hear daily. What is the time? You should al­ready know.

A bi­ol­o­gist straight out of Cam­bridge Univer­sity, Ross Harper spent two years head­ing his own tech­nol­ogy start-ups: BuyMyFace.com and Wrig­gle Ltd. As he be­gins his neu­ro­science PhD at UCL, Ross is liv­ing proof that you can take the boy out of the lab, but not the other way around. Be­tween de­vis­ing his lat­est crazy schemes, Ross makes an ef­fort to eat (pizza), sleep (two pil­lows), and ex­er­cise (ski­ing/rugby/swim­ming). Fol­low him on Twit­ter @refharper.

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